Nov 03

A few years ago, I wrote in an “On V Update to Old Ideas” that Eric C and I fall into the “optimist-idealist” camp when it comes to the future of war. Not only do we think war is decreasing over time, we think someday humans will be able to end all war. That makes us optimists.

But it feels strange to describe ourselves as “idealists”. Certainly a view of humanity as fundamentally good is idealistic. But is that inherently unrealistic? We didn’t come to that idea in a vacuum. Rather we found it in in academic research by Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, John Horgan, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko, Michael Cohen and John Mueller, who all wrote that--despite the constant war coverage in the media--the world is actually more peaceful and less violent than at any time in its history. The forces making it less violent and more peaceful, they also tend to argue, will likely continue in the foreseeable future. In essence, our optimistic views aren’t idealistic at all, but founded in a realistic view of contemporary events.

Yet, ironically, some international relations realists stand in front of this academic train yelling, “Halt.” For instance, Frank Hoffman writing on the realist website War on the Rocks, “Plato was Dead Wrong: Embracing Our Better Angels”.

When it comes to debating war, the “realists” like Frank Hoffman may as well be the idealists. Instead of using facts, data or anything empirical, they rely on ideals...an idealism based in a pessimism. To show this, I am going to go through Hoffman’s 2,500 word article and show the (lack of) evidence he uses to support his worldview that the world isn’t getting less violent:

- A misattributed quote. That’s right, the central uniting theme of his article is a “quote” from Plato, an incorrectly attributed quote that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” As we’ve written before, Plato didn’t say this; the unknown George Santayana did. Unfortunately for Hoffman, he googled the phrase to link to it. GoodReads.com doesn’t count as a reputable academic resource. If he had scrolled down, he might have stumbled across our article on “Quotes Behaving Badly.

- No academic citations or footnotes. Yep, after linking to Stephen Pinker, Bruno Tertais, Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen, Hoffman doesn’t link to a single academic article that argues that war is increasing in frequency. He doesn’t link to them because they don’t exist. Instead, he simply argues that globalization makes interstate war more likely, but can’t provide the data to support this.

- No charts or graphs. As a student of history and business, I know better than most that line graphs can be easily manipulated to prove anything. Hoffman, though, doesn’t even bother because he doesn’t even have the basic data on his side. No amount of chart manipulation will make it seem as if the world is on the verge of cataclysmic war.

- Elevating current news stories to data points. The key to arguing against optimists who say the world is less violent is doubling down on what one sociologist has called, “mean world syndrome”. Because the constant news cycle emphasizes violent and particularly heinous crimes, it makes the world seem more violent and chaotic than it really is. Hoffman absolutely embraces this strategy in his second paragraph:

“Ignore the front page of today’s paper. The civil war in Syria doesn’t exist and Damascus is a vacation hot spot. Egypt embraced Jeffersonian democracy while you slept. North Korea’s leadership has offered Disneyland and Starbucks unlimited access to the Hermit Kingdom...the Mullahs in Tehran have renounced clerical rule, asked for forgiveness for storming our embassy, and given us permanent basing rights on their coast.”

And Hoffman wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine. (The article is from last year.) He takes four data points and says, “See the world is more violent than ever.” Hoffman, like most realists who insist the world is more dangerous than ever, do so by selecting certain current data points and ignoring the rest, all the countries not engaging in wars.

- An anecdote. Hoffman then tells a story how British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, Norman Angell and Ivan Bloch all predicted peace and were proven wrong by World War I. He, of course, doesn’t mention the countless people who predicted a nuclear war in the 1950s, only to be proven wrong. The point is, the accuracy of past predictions isn’t evidence either way.

- Appeals to pessimistic beliefs about human nature. To cap off his argument, Hoffman, like most pessimists/realists, relies on the foundational belief that humans are naturally violent and self-interested:

“...human nature and history have not changed.  Better yet, go back and glance at Plato, Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz.  They all recognized that the “better angels of our nature” was mere gossamer.  A realistic appreciation of the human condition, one founded on a few millennia of frequently brutish and violent human history, will always serve as a reminder of the folly of illusory and Utopian thinking.”

For a website founded on realism that allegedly prefers personal experience to ideology as a starting point, Hoffman seems to start with Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz--again, his Plato quotation is completely inaccurate and contrary to much of Plato’s writings--and goes from there. Worse, as John Horgan completely demolished in The End of War, there is hardly any scientific evidence--either genetic, historical, anthropological or cultural--that human nature is fundamentally evil.

Unlike the times of Thucydides, Hobbes and Clausewitz, we now have rigorous social science that can test hypotheses. And the hypothesis that human nature is fundamentally evil has failed.

So there you have it: quotes, single data points, anecdotes, and an over-riding pessimistic belief a la Hobbes that mankind is nasty, brutish and violent. Data is the enemy of the realists, so that doesn’t make them very realistic, does it?

Oct 28

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch shoots and kills a rabid dog. Why? Because you can’t rationalize with an animal, especially a crazy animal caught by disease.

Too many Americans--even influential pundits and politicians--feel the same way about Arabs or Muslims, especially the extremists. From Andrew Bacevich in the Washington Post:

"You have to understand the Arab mind," one company commander told the New York Times..."The only thing they understand is force -- force, pride and saving face."

Far from representing the views of a few underlings, such notions penetrated into the upper echelons of the American command. In their book "Cobra II," Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor offer this ugly comment from a senior officer: "The only thing these sand n*****s understand is force and I'm about to introduce them to it.”

Societies use language to manipulate how we feel about other groups. We use language to dehumanize our enemies. By dehumanizing them, we make them easier to kill. It’s one thing to kill another rational human being with thoughts, emotions, feelings and a family. It’s another to kill a “sand n*****” who can’t be reasoned with.

Muslims (even the so called “islamofascists”) aren’t animals. They aren’t less than human. They aren’t barbarians, primitives or savages. They’re people. We may hate them and what they do. They’re still human.

We’ve been writing about language and hate speech for these last few months not because we’re grammar and usage mavens (though I am). We’re writing about language and war because words matter especially when those words sustain conflicts instead of ending them. Words actively change points of view and perceptions. Words actively shape worldviews. Language affects whether the American military ever tries to adopt population-centric counterinsurgency, or whether it decides that the enemy is an sub-human that must (and can only) be killed.

Take this quote from Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor:

“To meet these guys in these remote Pashtun villages only made the conundrum more difficult. Because right here we’re talking about Primitive with a big P. Adobe huts made out of sun-dried clay bricks with dirt floors and awful smell of urine and mule dung. Downstairs they have goats and chickens living in the house. And yet here, in these caveman conditions, they planned and then carried out the most shocking atrocity on a twenty-first-century city.”

This quote makes the masterminds of 9/11 sound like backwards primitives. But Osama bin Laden was anything but. Osama bin Laden, as is commonly known, was a millionaire from a rich, cultured family. He was educated; he was not a primitive. In fact, most terrorists are educated.

Tactically, this misguided belief puts us (the West, if you will) at a disadvantage. Understanding the enemy is the key to winning a war. By not actually knowing your enemy, you can’t defeat them. By labeling all Muslims--or at least, entire nations--as backwards, primitive, savages or barbarians, it destroys all nuance. After the Innocence of Muslims debacle from last year, Slate ran an article on Muslims who support free speech.

But I hate writing about tactics. Just like the debate about torture, it doesn’t matter if hate speech is  ineffective; morally, it’s wrong. That’s all that matters.

Oct 21

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

Last year, Matthew Bradley passed along a link to an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education on, well, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Corey Robin, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, describes the phenomenon of the “Wrongly Attributed Statement” (or as we call them, “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Naming things!). I really liked the essay…

Until I read the ending.

Corey Robin ends his essay defending this phenomenon as a (sort of) triumph of group think, or in his words, crowdsourcing:

“It's precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—"When bad men combine, the good must associate"—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

“It's good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.”

Nope.

First, Wrongly Attributed Statements, by definition, don’t change the meaning of a quote; they misidentify its authorship. That’s just intellectually wrong and corrupt. Misinformation exists; we don’t need to celebrate or endorse it. Most “Quotes Behaving Badly” (or Wrongly Attributed Statements) violate basic truth by misidentifying the author in an attempt to give the thought greater gravitas. (Think Plato versus George Santayana.) We should try to stamp that misinformation out, not celebrate it. Websites like BrainyQuote, ThinkExist, GoodReads and others, which use algorithms to systematically misidentify the actual authorship of a quote, just need to go. They perpetuate bad information.

Especially in today’s world, when it takes, what, a couple minutes to find the actual authorship of a quote? When Edmond Halley investigated comets, he had to comb through ancient tome after ancient tome documenting every mention of a comet. Today, you can Google search virtually every book that’s ever been written. Sites like Snopes, Quote Investigator, Wikiquote and Google Books make the process of researching and debunking “Quotes Behaving Badly” easier than it’s ever been in human history.    

Worse than that, as the cliche goes, conventional wisdom is just that, conventional. (If I wanted, I could attribute that cliche to Ben Franklin, inventing my own Wrongly Attributed Statement, giving the cliche the imprimatur of intellectual rigor.) Or often flat wrong.

As any reader to our “Quotes Behaving Badly” series know, we don’t just debunk the authorship of quotes; we debunk the quotes themselves. Let’s just look at two examples cited by Corey Robin. First, he cites Plato’s George Santanaya’s quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” as an example of a “Wrongly Attributed Statement”. Yes, it’s misattributed. It’s also wrong. As we’ve written and written, the world is safer than it has ever been; war is decreasing. Though most people reject this thesis, it’s happening. But this fatalistic little maxim denies this reality without using any evidence to support its claim, using the second or third most famous ancient Greek philosopher to give it the veneer of wisdom.

Same with Robin’s example, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." As we wrote before, “It’s banal and, in the hands of demagogues, has probably caused more death than it's saved.” This quote is also useless. Anti-war.com uses this quote and so do far right extremists. So does this sentiment actually send more people to battle than not? Does it actually prevent peace or reconciliation?

We’re going to keep debunking quotes like this, both their authorship and their sentiments. In a rigorous, forward-moving world, it’s not just something people can do; it’s something they should.

Especially academics.

Aug 12

(To read the rest of our posts on language and war--our “Getting Orwellian” series--please click here.)

To prove that many (too many) Americans demonize our enemies, we’re listing examples, starting last week and continuing today, of examples of hate speech against Muslims. What better place to do that than with conservative milblogs?

In the minds and words of some milbloggers, Muslims aren’t human. They’re barbarians, primitives, or savages. In other words, they’re less than human. We’ll detail why--on moral, ethical and practical ground--this language is unacceptable in later posts. Today, consider this post to be the proof, slaying the “straw man” ahead of time.

Without further ado, the hate, uncensored:

Barbarians

They are ruthless barbarians who boast about killing those they have taken hostage.

- The Jawa Report, “Beheading Desecration Video of Dead U.S. Soldiers Released on Internet by al Qaeda

It is high time for Pakistan to decide whether it belongs to civilization or to the barbarians.

- The Captain’s Journal, “When It Comes to Pakistan, We Just Can’t Handle the Truth

They are barbaric and full of hatred and vile for this country, regardless of whether we’re following the rules or not.

- A Soldier’s Perspective, “Take Off The Gloves

 “Feel better now you sub-human swine?...F**ing animals!

        - Blackfive, “Our Barbarian allies Kill UN Workers in Kabul

I hope the stars stay aligned for more operations against these barbarians.”  

- This Ain’t Hell, “US Marines free German ship from pirates”

Primitives

The primitive peoples of the middle east are perhaps the most gullible ethnic group on the planet.

        - Blackfive, “Squandering Our Victory”

Savages

So let me say that the proper response is not to look deep inside our souls and reflect on how it is that we could have done something to not offend these savages.

- Blackfive, “It’s not you, it’s me...

We are driving down the road of appeasement in speaking with savages that understand only one thing; power.

        - Blackfive, “1979 Anyone?

“...let's not let a bunch of marginally-civilized savages screw around with international shipping.

        - Blackfive, “Taking down pirates the hip thing to do

(For more examples from Blackfive, please don’t click here, here, here (also a Washington Times op-ed.) or here.)

Yeah, well, here’s the thing; these goat roping 6th century savages are going to attack us no matter what we do – remember the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the attacks on our African embassies, the attack on the USS Cole, the attacks on 9/11?

- This Ain’t Hell, “Peace talks inspire more terrorist groups”

“...goat-humping, 7th century, savage...

- This Ain’t Hell, “Ask an Infantryman”

Have you considered what would happen if the US and NATO declared victory and left your backwards-assed, 7th century collection of savages that you call a country...”

- This Ain’t Hell, “Just a Friendly Note to President Karzai from Col. Nathan Jessup

- “The Democrats recommend that we negotiate with 12th Century savages who are still cutting off hands and executing criminals in public. Savages who deny that there were millions executed in Europe because of their religion and sexual preferences in the last century.

- This Ain’t Hell, “Jack Reed; this drawdown is not a drawdown

Two thoughts: one, which century are these savages actually from? The sixth, the seventh or the twelfth? Finally, This Ain’t Hell has two more examples of using “savages” here and here.

Aug 14

A few week’s back on Carrying the Gun, Michael C rebutted the idea that, if women join the infantry, it somehow prevents young soldiers from validating themselves as men. He responded to this specific quote:

“The question looming, hidden and afraid in masculine hearts, as this discussion rages, is nearly impossible to ask: Where now does a man go to prove his manhood in society?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d read something like this. Donovan Campbell, in his war memoir Joker One, wrote:

"I also knew in the infantry I’d be in a place where I could no longer hide behind potential, a place where academic achievements and family connections were irrelevant."

(Before I go on, I do have to point out that Campbell’s assertion is absurd. Family connections absolutely make a difference in the military. Unfortunately, I will agree with him that academic accomplishments are meaningless.)

Andrew Exum, in his memoir This Man’s Army, wrote:

"I began to believe that war might be the only answer to all my doubts. That war might validate my existence as a soldier and a man."

In my time living with Michael C in Italy, I met more than one soldier who justified their experience in the Army with this explanation. In short, if you want to prove yourself, go to war and see some action.

Michael C, in his guest post, addressed gender issues. To me, the real issue is a moral one: why should one have to validate their existence by killing people?

The above quotes don’t talk about joining the military, but going to war. Exum specifically writes, war is “the only answer” while Campbell advocates joining the infantry, not say, logistics or the Signal Corps.

The vague, indefinable self-worth one gets from going to war comes at a cost. That cost is human life. Whatever self-worth a soldier gains from his combat experience, the cost in human lives will always outweigh it.

Want a good reason to join the military? Do it to protect our country. Or to help other people around the world. Or to pay for college. (I just happen to think that should be free regardless.) Do it to learn leadership or gain life skills. My favorite reason comes from my dad when he justified Michael C’s decision to join the military: the military needs smart, ethical soldiers. It needs soldiers who will question authority, who will strive to improve the organization and, most importantly, who will maintain the moral high ground.

Those are all good reasons to join the military.

But no one should have to prove their self worth by killing someone else.

May 23

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a post clarifying what we mean by “Our Communist Military”. A common, and probably justified, complaint was that we threw around the epithet “communist”, labeling people and institutions “communist” when they weren’t.

Who would do that? Who would casually accuse someone of being a communist or a socialist with little to no proof? Who would compare someone to Stalin, Marx, Lenin or, less famously, Trotsky? The reaction to our post had a resoundingly clear point: you can’t just accuse someone or some organization of being communist when they aren’t.

Who would do that?

Oh yeah. Milbloggers. (At least, conservative milbloggers.)

“This political cow, our president, is a far leftist in whose mind the weapon of choice is the AK 47, a veritable symbol of violent revolutionary communism around the world. As a Vietnam veteran, I’m telling you, Barack Obama might as well have raised a red star communist flag.”

This Ain’t Hell, “A President is Known by the Weapons He Chooses…

“If all this sounds a bit too much to swallow, consider the political origins of the key players in the current administration. All are products of the Chicago political machine, a thoroughly liberal/socialist/communist movement”

This Ain’t Hell, “Actually Going After a Cartel”

“The opening of Great Leader's address to the People's Congress was pretty disturbing...That or maybe he really is a socialist...Friedrich Hayek, a guy who actually deserved his Nobel, took a preemptive axe to Obamunism in the "Road to Serfdom"...Mr. President, just because you slid into the chair of the Commander in Chief doesn't mean you command the American people. So don't expect us to salute and move out smartly when you crank up the Internationale and start barking out orders.”

Blackfive, “Obama's call for an Army of the Proletariat

“In case you missed it, the American Civil Liberties Union (more accurately - the American Communist Lawyers Union) has filed a lawsuit demanding the basis for conducting targeted killings with armed drones.”

Blackfive, “Military Roundup

(And if you think we had to make any of the photos for this page, don’t worry. We just googled “Obama communist” and hundreds of examples came up.)

I suppose I should end this post by drawing some larger conclusion, by standing on a pulpit and judging everyone. I’m not. Everyone throws epithets around; it doesn’t make it okay, but it isn’t the worst thing in the world, especially if it’s done as a rhetorical device. (Without insults, we’d have no Menken, Twain or Stewart.)

Or I could just point out that, when we called the military communist, we didn’t mean it. Though, the military does (subconsciously) embrace communist ideals, we don’t actually think the military is communist.

But I’m not sure the same is true for the above writers.

May 21

(To read the entire "Our Communist Military" series, please click here.

And as we now have to clarify in each one of these posts, we don’t actually think that the military is “communist”. That’s a rhetorical stand-in for socialist, liberal, progressive, what have you.)

If there’s been one consistent piece of blowback we’ve received for our “Our Communist Military” series, it’s been that...

We don’t know what communism is!

Commenters on the Doctrine Man facebook page wrote, “I highly advise they educate themselves on the meaning of the word ‘communist’.” Or you can go find This Ain’t Hell’s response to “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”. (We’re not going to link to it.) The comments section goes nuts because This Aint Hell’s readers think that we think that they’re communist.

Dozens, and we mean dozens, of people became infuriated (infuriated!) that we would call them (or the military) communist. Or people thought we were really, really ignorant. Luckily, our readers came to the rescue in the comments section of “Our Politically Correct Communist Milblogs”:

“I am confused why you used communism, an economic theory, to describe the military. I’ll agree all military gear is ‘communal’ but there is the idea of ‘private property’ as in, better have all your gear for an inspection. It’s not your gear but you better have it shined or else.” - Shreck 

 

“I think the C.‘s (and feel free to correct/clarify), are using “communism” in the sense of communitarian social system, more so than any arrangement of ownership of the means of production, and its pejorative status among the objects of this series’ criticism.” - Duck 

 

“@ Shreck – On the use of the word “communist”, I’ll be honest: I think that it’s more of a rhetorical point than anything. If anything, it should be “our Liberal military”. But it gets people’s attention, though we don’t mean it as proper communism.

That said, for this post, apportioning out rewards, like the title “hero”, without regard for accomplishment sounds like communism to me.” - Eric C 

 

“@ C.‘s – Maybe you should start including a disclaimer making it clear that you don’t think the US is full of people committed to the communist ideology, and that you are using the term as a rhetorical device to highlight tendencies which create inconsistencies in the worldviews of many military folks.

That might finally end all of the hang up on the term that seems to prevent engagement with the actual argument.” - Duck        

 

“Would you mind if we steal almost your exact verbiage? That about sums up exactly what we were trying to do.”   - Michael C

We now open each new “Our Communist Military” post with a disclaimer--see above--explaining that we use “communist” as a rhetorical device. (It’s called hyperbole.) We don’t think the military is “communist” proper. I mean, the military isn’t even a government, nor an economic system.

But we’re writing this series to argue three things:

1. Though people think the military is politically conservative, in many ways, it’s incredibly liberal.

2. The rest of society can learn from what the “communist military” does well...

3. And what it doesn’t do well. Some of the military’s “socialist” programs just don’t work. At all. The military needs to learn from what the private sector does well. (Check out this post, for example.)

In short, this series has criticisms for the left, the right and the media. The takeaway? Sometimes the boxes in which we categorize people and organizations just don’t make any sense.

Which is the whole point of the title.

Apr 15

On December 14, 2012 I called Michael C on my drive home from work and told him that we had to change our most intriguing event of the year. We were going to write about Benghazi and Petraeus--and we did--but something felt different that day. Something changed. And I had to write about it. As my dad bluntly asked me a week later, “You’re going to write about Newtown and guns, right?”

I felt that we had to. If one word defines 2012, that word would be “shootings”:

- On February 26 in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin.

- On April 2, seven people died in a university shooting in Oakland, California.

- On July 20, a shooter killed twelve people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.

- A few weeks later, a white supremacist killed 6 Sikhs in a temple shooting in Wisconsin. 

- On September 20, a shooter killed six people in Minneapolis, Minnesota after he was fired from his job.

- Finally, in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook elementary school.

Michael C and I have quite a few thoughts on guns. We actually pulled a Matty P guest post scheduled to run a week after Newtown called, “I Own a Gun” (coming later this week) because we didn’t want to attract attention at such an inappropriate time. And Newtown asks plenty of tough questions: do guns cause or prevent violence? Do guns protect our freedoms, or inhibit them? What does ‘2nd amendment remedies” actually mean?

And people have been asking us our thoughts, both in person--because friends and family know we write a blog on violence--and in the comments section. Internally, this issue caused a massive debate for a few weeks at the end of December. First, Michael C and I had several discussions about posting on guns. On the way to a wedding at the end of January, Michael C, Matty P and myself again discussed it for hours.

Our conclusion? For a few reasons, we’re not going to be discussing guns or gun control on this blog in the foreseeable future.

First, unfortunately, Eric C and I aren’t experts in this form of violence. Not nearly. And we don’t know what to make about the statistics. We’ve already written about that here. Listen to this Intelligence Squared debate. Can you really say that one side has their facts wrong? On one hand, Americans has a crazy number of gun deaths compared to its population. (America had 9,000 gun deaths in 2011; England had 39.) On the other, mass shootings aren’t actually increasing. Hrrm. Do video games cause violence? Who knows?

Before we dive into a complicated, divisive, controversial, alienating topic, we’d like to be secure in our grasp of the subject matter. Should guns be banned? If guns should be banned, which ones? Why? For what reason?

Finding those answers will take time--and we will get to it eventually--but not now. We just don’t have enough time to dedicate to researching the issue, then writing up a thoughtful response. Michael C is in business school; I work full-time.

There are lots of issues we’ve wanted to write about on the blog, but couldn’t, for lack of time: the Mexican drug war, the gun control debate, the prison issue, Syria, drunk driving. Hell, I have a stack of books three feet high of memoirs I’d like to review for On Violence. Michael C has another stack of books he wants to review.

Frankly, we just don’t see the upside of wading into a topic fraught with partisans on each side that we don’t have the time to devote to...yet. Gun violence is violence at its most personal, and we hope to get to it. Just not now.